Faith Refined by Doubt

It was such a joy to be with you all last week on Easter Sunday, what a beautiful and uplifting service. Some people asked me about this, and yes it was an odd yet lovely experience as a pastor not leading worship or preaching on Easter–just sitting in the pews with everyone. One of the perks I guess you could say about being the pastor of a nontraditional community.

Though if I’m being honest with you, as a preacher, I much prefer this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, than the big day itself. The lectionary usually lists this post-resurrection story on this day, and I always find it fascinating to reflect on. As obviously important as the resurrection and Easter is, I find it a little unfortunate that today is usually one of the least-attended Sundays in the year.

Now I have no interest in judging people for coming or not coming to church. However, I do think it’s unfortunate because for many people who maybe aren’t regular church goers, especially in this increasingly post-Christian age, I think today’s message might be as important, and certainly very helpful for folks to hear. For I would wager that they might have questions about the place for doubt and certainty in the Christian faith—can one believe and be a follower of Jesus while having some doubts and questions?

Traditionally Christians have made an example out of so-called “Doubting Thomas,” in order to place this sort of rugged, unquestioning faith on a pedestal. But I have to admit that I, and I am going to guess that maybe even some of you, sometimes sympathize with Thomas’s suspicions or struggle to believe.

Resurrection from the dead is, in fact, not a normal occurrence. Though there were suspicions of Jesus’ messianic and even divine identity up to his death, the possibility of resurrection after death was and is beyond the scope of reason. Especially for the modern mind, it defies all categories of physics that we can fathom.

How are we to process this? Again, we are products of Western modernity. So one impulse of modernity would be to just rule out the possibility altogether, and call it religious myth. Another modern road we could take would be to open an investigation tracking down empirical data via the scientific method, or perhaps “prove” it through a calculus of apologetics.

Or, perhaps in reaction to these options, do we just accept the resurrection and other fantastical traditions in scripture at face value as historical truth, without questioning them? These are often the camps we Christians fall into when it comes to processing phenomena that challenge our modern sensibilities–with the most common, of course, being unquestioning belief.

Today, I want to explore an alternative, which if I could be so presumptuous, I believe might be called authentic faith. To me that looks like simply trusting God, and holding space for mystery, which includes allowing space for uncertainty, even in our faith, having suspended judgments as a former professor used to often say.

As John tells the story of the easter event, it’s important to remember that the other 10 disciples were likely in a similar boat as Thomas. John tells us that after Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, she ran and told the disciples what she had seen. The very next scene we have describes the disciples hiding in fear behind a locked door.

We don’t know what they were talking about or what was going on in their hiding room, yet we do know, that even after receiving the good news from Mary, they are afraid. Afraid of “the Jews,” as John says. It’s always important to pause and unpack this character, the Jews, for misinterpretation of the ways Jews are talked about in these gospel narratives has consequences.

It is a painful truth that we must reckon with: these harsh words and ugly portrayals of Jewish people in our New Testament, twisted by poor interpretation and evil intention, has fostered tragic legacies of anti-Semitic hate, discrimination, and even genocide that have spanned centuries and centuries.

I would say especially in the state of our country today, it is critical for Christians, especially during the Holy Week and Easter season, to be vigilant about our propensity for antisemitism. We must remember that Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jews. Jesus likely did not intend to establish a new, separate religion. John penned his gospel in the late first century in the midst of an intra-family conflict, where Jesus-following Jews are struggling to find space for their identity within the synagogue life. Much of the animus towards “the Jews” in this gospel is reflective of that specific conflict, and it’s critical we keep that in mind and don’t develop anti-Jewish thinking in our theology.

So at this point in the story the disciples are hiding in fear, afraid of the religious mobs who were able to pressure the Roman authorities to crucify the one whom they believed was the Messiah. Hiding in fear–now to me, this doesn’t seem like the posture of a community that had a whole lot of confidence in the message that their messiah had risen from the dead.

But in their fear behind locked doors, Jesus appears with greetings of peace and the gifting of the Holy Spirit–surely John’s way of highlighting that God’s peace and the Holy Spirit are poured out into the world through the resurrection of Christ.

Unfortunately, Thomas was absent during this fantastic appearance. So when he hears the report that Jesus had been raised and had appeared to them and offered his peace, Thomas responds in a way that a lot of us might: “Yeah right. That’s impossible. Unless I see him, and the scars that verify him, I’m not buying it.”

He kind of sounds like someone in our social media age who has to take and send pictures of everything he does on tiktok or instagram otherwise his friends won’t believe his experience–”pics or it didn’t happen.”

Pics or it didn’t happen says Thomas, he’s gotta see some hard proof. As I can sympathize a little bit with Thomas here, I wrestle with this story–what is really going on here? Is Jesus admonishing Thomas and condemning doubt or uncertainty or questions in our faith? Is Jesus demanding a certain kind of blind, unquestioning belief?

This is certainly a common interpretation of this encounter, a cautionary tale about doubt, but I don’t know if that fully engages the rest of the story. The story starts with the group of disciples who are not having a triumphant resurrection party–no they are huddled in fear, behind a locked door. Fear, which many say is the antithesis to faith, fear which permeates the scriptures as a chorus of voices echo God’s dependable refrain: Fear not.

Yet behind the closed doors, in the midst of the unknown and the fear of the disciples, Jesus cryptically yet clearly places himself in their presence, and to their state of fear and disorientation he speaks: Peace be with you. Jesus comes alongside their fears and uncertainties and embraces them as he extends them the peace of his presence.

And after Thomas can’t find it in himself to believe this report, Jesus again shows up. Peace be with you. Acknowledging the unbelief of Thomas, Jesus offers up the very scars that Thomas had demanded to see as proof. As Thomas expresses his doubt, Jesus is present still, meeting him where he’s at, first extending peace in the midst of it all.

Thomas struggles to make sense of it and believe, and Jesus offers Thomas the grace to say, “here, look! See my hands, see my scars, you can believe.” It is not with judgment but with grace that Jesus meets Thomas in his doubts.

I don’t think uncertainty or ambiguity are things that anyone really enjoys—uncertain spaces in life are often stressful, sometimes torturous. You ever been there? It’s true, psychologically, the presence of ambiguity, doubt, fear, and uncertainty have a destabilizing power for our mental and emotional health–their presence can cause an overwhelming wave of stress.

For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, or maybe even just consuming stress, unstable and ambiguous spaces in life can lay the soil for painful spirals of torment on the mind and the soul. I know for myself, and maybe for some of you, the sense of inner peace and healing in those spaces come not when uncertainty goes away, but when we’re able to embrace and coexist with the uncertainty.

As much as uncertainty triggers our limbic system, that primitive fight-or-flight center in our brain, the truth is that life, and faith, will always have dimensions of uncertainty and ambiguity.

For much of the Western Christian tradition, we try to mitigate this with complex systems of doctrine that offer explanations of God, ourselves, and our world. Perhaps the most poignant example is fundamentalism and its system of biblical inerrancy, which was born in reaction to modern science and modern biblical criticism. You remember the Scopes Monkey Trial? In reaction to growing questions and doubts, fundamentalism seeks to force certainty, and in many cases control, and for now I won’t go into how toxic and destructive this has been.

A couple years ago as I served as a temporary pastor in North Carolina, I led a couple youth in a confirmation class. And we used a really cool curriculum that was called “Confirm not Conform.” The idea behind this was that the classical faith formation paradigm of teaching the bible and all the history and doctrines of the church and asking, “ok, do you accept it or not?” is not really the most constructive way for nurturing an authentic, living faith.

Because what that paradigm presents, more or less, is a predetermined confession to conform to. Faith is so much more than confessing the faith that has been handed on to us.

I am convinced that there is a difference between a confession of faith and an experience of living faith. There is a difference between giving your affirmation to a system of doctrines, a cognitive assent to a belief system with its various answers and explanations, and walking in a faith that embraces all the “I don’t knows” and “I’m not sures,” continuing to open oneself to mysterious presence of God.

And look I’m an ordained Presbyterian, I do believe confession is important–what we believe, our theology and how we get there does really matter. Quick example, it matters if your idea of God’s sovereignty leads you to say things like “well it was God’s will” when a hurricane kills thousands. That’s bad theology that’s harmful to people.

But I think faith, authentic faith, is more akin to a trust in your gut than an affirmation in your brain. Yes, our faith is in big trouble if we neglect reason and critical thought, but that’s ultimately not where faith resides. I think a healthy, authentic faith is displayed in a rugged trust in Christ, his love, presence, and promise, even with lingering uncertainties and doubts. A rigid belief system that has everything mapped out and leaves no room for questions is suspect, for beneath the surface, certitude is often rooted in fear and insecurity.

Some of you may know that I am a runner, my passion is trail running here in our hills and mountains. For some crazy reason I have gotten into long distance running, I’ve run a couple road marathons and even crazier, I’ve participated in a couple ultramarathons in the mountains, which are races that are longer than a marathon. This is just as much of a mental challenge as it is physical.

People say you experience a lifetime in an ultramarathon–awesome euphoric highs, and deep soul-crushing lows. You kind of reach a point where you’ve slogged through mountain trails for multiple hours and many miles, yet there’s still quite a ways to go to get to the finish and you’re just not sure if you can cross that chasm. It’s all up in the air, it’s all uncertain–your body, your performance, the course. Your assumption of finishing the race is thrown into question.

In those low moments, what many in the ultrarunning world call the “pain cave” where your physical and mental exhaustion coalesce, it can be easy to be overcome by the doubt and uncertainty brought on by the pain, and simply accept defeat and drop out of the race. A completely reasonable thing to do!

I’ve found that the most effective way to push through is to be present in that cave of uncertainty, to accept the mystery of this epic adventure and say yes to each step. I may not know if I’ll finish or if my body will simply quit in a couple miles, but I’ll just keep saying yes to taking the next step and take it one half-mile at a time. And what’s really profound is the discovery of myself as I continue to step into the mystery.

For me, faith has begun to look more and more like this. Much less blasting off the starting line full of confidence and certainty, and more taking uncertain yet open steps into the mystery to see what I discover. I think ultimately, faith is saying yes. For some, it may be saying yes to this and that confession of faith articulated by the Church across the centuries.

But I think most importantly, faith is saying yes to the great Mystery. Yes to a God who we can never fully know or explain yet who we can taste and see deeply in bread and cup and in the sacrament of creation and in the divinity of compassion. Yes to the possibility of encountering the One who is wholly other yet wholly within us and all things. Yes to the possibility that God is present in the world cultivating divine peace. Yes to the One who makes the impossible possible, like love over hostility, healing of brokenness and liberation from oppression, and even life amidst and after death.

As my faith changes over the years, I’m finding new inspiration in these final words of Jesus: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. We are blessed as we step into the mystery without seeing, for we are then open to trusting God with each step, casting our wager of faith with our lives as we love God and neighbor, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.